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Love Songs for the Streets

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    March 14, 2017

The Chicago rapper moves away from his recent commercially-minded exploits and embraces a more mature style of writing.

Will Lil Durk get another chance to be a rap star? He's the last great hope of the class of 2012, back when drill music first crumbled the city’s pavements to dust. Chief Keef’s indiscipline killed his momentum. Lil Reese sank under the weight of a charge sheet. King Louie is still around, making the kind of graphene-tough drill that sledgehammered its way into hip-hop’s collective conscious a half-decade ago. But only one rapper calls himself the Allah of Chi-Town.

Durk Banks was still in his teens when he signed to Def Jam in 2012, ostensibly becoming one of drill’s great crossover hopes. He dropped two commercially-minded albums on the label and scored minor hits with “Like Me” and “My Beyoncé,” syrupy jams that made good use of the rapper’s pop instincts. But he’s never been able to parlay any of these achievements into large-scale embracement. Or even, say, Meek Mill-esque sales. The final few steps always elude him.

Love Song for the Streets doesn’t concern itself with mainstream acceptance. Instead, we get no false starts or unwise experiments, just Durk unfiltered: nine shots of garbled Auto-Tune vocals, punchy lyricism, goofy sex jams, and hooks that stick.

Unshackled from any kind of outline, Durk’s pen game shines. His rise was dotted with blood-soaked tales that summarized much of drill’s appeal: ground-level glimpses at Chicago's South Side that colored in the outline offered by grim murder statistics. Love Song for the Streets, though, finds the father-of-two in a more mournful mood. He’s still only 24, but he raps with the weariness of someone who has seen too damn much.

“Pick Your Poison” is a robust smack down of so-called friends that abandoned him when goings got tough. “Hell yeah I hold a grudge,” Durk spits over Will-A-Fool’s dark production, “these niggas ain’t show no love.” Later, he offers some open-book revelations: “I used to chew on them xannies to get me through the times.” There’s a touch of Curtis Mayfield in Durk’s gloss-free depiction of urban living—hard times in this crazy town.

In Durk’s world, viciousness is a part of life’s mundanity. Moments of youthful innocence are precious in the “trenches”: “My uncle died in a stabbing/I moved to the A now I’m dabbing,” he raps on “Handouts.” It’s about finding something to cling onto, a thin sliver of light—in this case, a dab—in the vast darkness. Durk’s ugly-beautiful vocals punctuate one of coldest visions of Chicago.

As a front-to-back production job, Love Song for the Streets feels raw, dinky, and inexpensive. The gritty orchestration melds itself inseparably from Durk’s synthetic vocals. “No Love,” produced by S Breezy, is built on some twisted guitar notes, a thumping bass line, and lots of dead space for Durk and guest Young Thug to fill. Tracks like “Mood” have more in common with Thugger’s favored future-cop production style than the horror movie theatrics of drill, while Durk’s strong sense of melody shines on the sleazy ode to his girl, “Uzi.”

Drill was largely built around incredibly young rappers burdened with many of the troubles listeners found so thrilling. Five years later, Durk is reporting from the firestorm while trying to grow up within it. Love Song for the Streets lacks the kind of breadth required of a classic release, but as a table setter to Durk’s next episode, it gets the message across.